We have learned to expect both excellence and brilliance from English writer Ian McEwan. His new novel, The Children Act, may possibly be his finest book yet, although I am not certain that such a remark is even necessary since so many of them are superior. The ambiguous title, which I originally took to mean something about a group of children doing something/acting, actually refers to an English law that is meant to protect the welfare of children, thus known as The Children Act.
The narrator/protagonist, a 59 year old female judge named Fiona, who is called in court “My Lady”, is one of McEwan’s finest creations. She has been ambitious her entire life, and she finds herself a much respected jurist, with a brilliant mind, and sly sense of humor. She seems to get an abnormally large number of cases dealing with divorce, the possible removal of children from dysfunctional families, and the like. But behind the scenes, when she is not presiding, her own marriage is in crisis. She and her husband, an academic, are at that later-in-life “polite” phase of marriage, where both careers are at their peak, and they spend little playful time together. Fiona works most evenings at home, and we sense her husband’s restlessness and sense of being put on the back burner. Although their social life is active, much of it is professional dinners: McEwan is brilliant in presenting Fiona as a complete success story professionally, but she delayed having children so long, with her husband’s agreement, that they were no longer able to consider having them. Their childlessness is the backdrop for so many of her cases dealing with the welfare of children. McEwan presents these dilemmas of modern life so perfectly, with ambivalences and ambiguities, part of the life of many successful professional couples today.
The case that brings all of these issues to a head involves a 17 year old boy with a rare form of leukemia, whose parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and who do not believe in blood transfusions, which is the only thing that will save the boy’s life. Much is made in the court of the boy being three months short of legal adulthood, and the back and forth of the lawyers for both parties, one being the hospital wanting to perform the transfusion, and the other the parents, shows us Fiona’s mind and action, and a great one it truly is, as we are privy to her thought processes on the bench as she listens to competing arguments. She will have the sole decision about whether or not the transfusion will be given. She decides to make a rare out of court appearance, by going to the hospital and meeting the boy, to see if his decision to refuse transfusion is truly an informed one, or whether he is trying to please his parents and the elders of his religion.
Suffice to say that her decision comes back to haunt her, though not by judicial appeals, or through the media, but from the boy himself, who begins to follow her—possibly stalk her–, and how she handles his needs becomes the true moral crisis of the novel, rather than her judicial decision, which many will take as the moral crisis, but it isn’t. All this plays out against the decline of her marriage, and the inability of Fiona and her husband to communicate at all. Her public and private lives are completely at odds. I have rarely encountered a writer as fine as McEwan who draws the character of a contemporary working woman as well as he does with Fiona. McEwan makes all the characters sympathetic in their different ways. It is easy in contemporary developed countries to dislike successful professional women like Fiona, but for McEwan, that would be cheap, crass, and untrue. Fiona is not cold, she is well liked by her colleagues, mainly male, while an obvious role model and mentor for younger women in the law, and she performs all of these roles with grace, humor, and dignity: McEwan is at the height of his powers in creating this empathetic strong woman.
The first five or ten pages may be the best introductory chapter I have read in over a decade. McEwan sets his stages with consummate brilliance; this is a very adult book for adults, and it represents unresolved territories still evolving in contemporary American, European, and English life and culture. The Children Act is an obvious award winning novel, bound to end up on every best novel of the year list in 2014. I urge you to read it.